Choices about energy and the role of natural gas
AP File Photo
A crew works on a gas-drilling rig at a well site for shale-based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa., in June 2012.
Conflicting and confusing information is nothing new when it comes to climate change or big energy projects. The role of natural gas in meeting our energy needs is but the latest guest to this party.
Like most things in life, natural gas itself is neither all good nor all bad. True, natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fuel with fewer emissions than coal or oil. And currently natural gas prices are lower compared to oil. As a source for electricity, gas can be quickly brought on and off line and so fills a useful niche to balance intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind. But these benefits are only part of the equation.
Relatively clean-burning does not mean clean. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It contributes to climate change in very significant ways. The main component of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas 25 to 75 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its ability to warm the Earth’s atmosphere.
The real damage comes from natural gas leaks. And they occur. When an average leak rate of 3 percent is taken into account for the full natural gas life cycle — from the time it leaves the ground to the time it burns in your furnace or range — it turns out that increasing the supply of natural gas significantly increases emissions. That is not good for our climate.
Lower cost comes at a high price. Natural gas prices are now low partly because of abundant supplies from fracking, an extraction method that uses water, sand and chemicals to force gas out of the ground. Vermont banned fracking because of concerns about the impact to water and the environment. But this practice continues elsewhere, and supplies used in Vermont come from fracked sources.
In Vermont, a proposed expansion of natural gas will cut through valuable wetlands and farmland in Addison and Chittenden Counties. Future plans include putting pipelines across Lake Champlain, a development that would increase greenhouse gas emissions by more than 3 million tons over the life of the project — the equivalent of adding a half-million cars to the road.
One of the biggest problems of increasing our reliance on natural gas is that the pipes we put in place now will still be here to deliver gas in 50 to 100 years. Yet in that timeframe we must solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels — including natural gas.
Regionally across New England, momentum is developing to expand or build new gas pipelines. But this is not the answer. We can do better than throw up our hands and blindly accept expensive and environmentally damaging new pipelines at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels.
The first step should be to repair leaks and honestly account for and address emissions. It makes no sense to build expensive, bigger pipes while customers needlessly pay for gas and pollution that escape into the air.
The next step is to use gas and all fossil fuels wisely. By dramatically increasing efficiency, most homes and businesses could cut use by 20 to 30 percent. That would significantly reduce the need for more supply.
Finally, let’s make sure any new project helps and doesn’t hurt our climate and environment. We should keep sensitive and valuable environmental resources off the table.
We should prohibit supplies from fracking, and we should require offsets to reduce overall emissions for any new pipeline so we don’t add to our climate problems.
Natural gas will likely play an important role in our energy supply over the next decade, but let’s make sure it is a role that leads to a cleaner and healthier planet.
Sandra Levine is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier and can be reached at email@example.com.